By Geoff Boucher
Updated April 15, 2013 at 05:19 PM EDT

Fans of Suburgatory and Firefly know actor Alan Tudyk as the actor with an open face and daft smile while the audiences that saw I, Robot remember the humanity he invested in a character of man-made machinery. This weekend, however, the audiences that sat down in the dark for the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 saw a startling new aspect of the 42-year-old actor’s craft. Playing Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who more than any other character in the film embodies the angry face and venomous voice of mid-century racism in America, Tudyk taunts Robinson (newcomer Chadwick Boseman) with a relentless geyser of vile and humiliating epithets.

“The way Brian saw this role and the reason he wanted me in the role [was] he didn’t want a straight-up villain,” says Tudyk, who has been good friends with writer/director Brian Helgeland since working together on the medieval adventure A Knights Tale. “He didn’t want the kind of the guy that everybody sees come on screen and the minute they see him they say, ‘Oh, I hate this guy.’ He wanted somebody that might be funny. If you read up on it and go back, the people who knew Ben Chapman really liked him, they thought he was a good guy. He wasn’t viewed as a villain. When he comes up out of the dugout and yells all these insults, there’s a lot of it that he’s doing to entertain his players and it has this schoolyard quality to it: ‘You doing a little dance for us, ‘Jangles? You can do it, can’t you? You can dance, you got rhythm.'”

Robinson, a towering figure in sports history as the man who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, encountered incredible abuse when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Some of his own teammates refused to play with him, and his opponents challenged him at every turn, well aware that he couldn’t respond, lest he ruin Branch Rickey’s “great experiment” and delay further integration. As Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells Robinson, “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”

In his hectoring scenes Chapman is both a class clown and a classic bully and each reminds the movie’s audiences that racism is just as often accompanied by a smirk as it is a scowl or a shout. Helgeland wanted a character actor who might make the audience lean forward with his charisma before making them recoil with his dialogue. Tudyk hopes that the blend of the repellant and the engaging will put moviegoers in a place where they find themselves surprised at their own reactions.

“It showed everyone what Jackie was going through,” Tudyk says. “Chapman put a face to the racism and showed the public a bit of what was in the back of their own mind and it was so ugly to them that they thought about things differently or at least thought about them. Chapman no doubt felt like, ‘Everybody thinks these things, nobody wants this guy playing baseball. If nobody else is man enough to say it, I will.’ And he did and in a way that helped change things. He said things to Jackie’s face that many, many others were saying behind his back.”

Chapman, in the final analysis, did a great service to Robinson by showing the American public a side of itself that it just couldn’t stomach — and by forcing Robinson’s Dodgers teammates to finally stick up for him. The hostility he showed Robinson reached a public relations boiling point for baseball and it was arranged that the two men would pose for a photo together as a sign of good sportsmanship — that picture instead became a symbol of a divided culture when the two chose to grip the same bat rather than actually shake hands.

Thomas Tull, the 42 producer, said the role of racist presented a key casting challenge but the choice was a home run. “Alan is one of those actors that is incredibly adaptive and able to personify just about any role he chooses to. I only met him recently on this movie — I went over to him and shook his hand and told him I thought he did an incredible job in a complex role. He is a great actor.”

It’s 42the No. 1 movie in America right now — may best underline the range of the eclectic Juilliard grad but it came at the cost of some emotional health during the shoot. Boseman at first chose to limit his interactions with Tudyk when they weren’t in character (he fretted that any warmth between them might work against their on-screen animus) and Tudyk was already feeling like an outsider in his own skin. There was two days of filming on a baseball diamond that called for Tudyk to unleash a torrent of slurs and “every stereotype and bigoted joke imaginable,” he says, and by the end, he found himself in dark funks where he found it hard to greet the real world with a smile.

“I was in the worst mood ever,” the actor says with a groan. “It was hateful stuff and at the end of the second night, I went out to eat and they brought the food and I sent it back and I was starting to send it back a second time when I stopped and [told the server], ‘You know this has nothing to do with you, this has nothing to do with the food, I’m just going to pay the check and go.’ I wasn’t fit for public consumption. It was a high-intensity stressful shoot and I really felt it.”

That’s changed now and he sees Chapman and what he represents as a lesson to him and to anyone who looks back to a “simpler time” that was actually no less complicated than today. “There were a lot of parallels that present themselves as you watch the movie, and at certain points you really realize how much we’ve overcome but it also makes you realize how far we have to go,” Tudyk says. “It takes you back to the time but it also brings things forward when you see moments that connect with our era. You say to yourself, ‘Some things haven’t changed that much.'”

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  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 128 minutes
  • Brian Helgeland